December 2002 Film Music CD Reviews

Film Music Editor: Ian Lace
Music Webmaster Len Mullenger

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DVDs reviews
Audio/Video Compilations:
Naxos Musical Journeys:

French Festival Comprising visual images of Tarascon; Marseilles; Camargue; Arles; Port de Poussai; Cannes; and Fréjus
- set to:- Chabrier – Marche Joyeuse; – Pavane pour une infante défunte; – Sicilienne and Pavane; Godard – Berceuse; Debussy – La terrasse des audiences au clair de lune and Clair de lune Offenbach – Barcarole (The Tales of Hoffmann); Saint Saëns – Danse Macabre  
  Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ondrej Lenárd ; (recorded in Bratislava in 2000)
  NAXOS DVD DVDI 1022   [53 mins]

Italian Festival  Comprising visual images of Sestri Levante; Montepulciano and Contucci Vineyards; Genoa; Florence and Venice - set to: Leoncavallo – Mattinata; Cui – Tarantelle; Massenet - Scènes Napolitaines (La Danse, La Procession et l'Improvisateur, La Fête); Gounod – Saltarello; Denza – Funiculì, funiculà; Godard – Scènes Italiennes (Serenade Florentine, Sicilienne, Tarantelle); Liszt – Tarantelle, Mendelssohn – Venetian Gondolier's Song
  Czecho-Slovak Radio Symphony Orchestra conducted by Ondrej Lenárd; (recorded in Bratislava in 2000)
  NAXOS DVD DVDI 0993   [56 mins]

french festival

Music and images is the very stuff of Film Music on the Web so it was natural that these interesting DVDs should come under our purview. How to marry classical music with enhancing, sympathetic visuals, has always interested filmmakers. Just filming an orchestra in performance has limited visual appeal so producers may be forgiven, even applauded, if they are inclined to seek alternatives. Success – many would say a limited success – was achieved in Disney's Fantasia. There have also been a number of attempts to shape documentaries to music – notably travelogues which would seem to be naturally suitable and sympathetic because so many pieces of music are evocations of specific places or countries e.g. Tchaikowsky's Italian Caprice or Borodin's In the Steppes of Central Asia.

In the early days of CinemaScope a short travelogue on Italy went out with the feature Three Coins in the Fountain (itself with a memorable score by Victor Young as well as the title song made famous by Frank Sinatra). Remember, this was when the widescreen system and its accompanying stereophonic sound were in their infancy, so the travelogue was considered to be just as prestigious as the main feature it supported. The travelogue was, suitably, about the tourist attractions of Italy. The 20th Century Fox studio orchestra recorded the symphonic material conducted by the studio's main composer and Music Director, Alfred Newman. Now Newman knew instinctively how music could not only serve on-screen atmosphere, emotions and action but conversely how music's impact could be maximised by sympathetic on-screen images. He understood that the images had to be arranged so that their pace and dynamics and emotional atmosphere paralleled and supported the music. [Often canny feature film directors will instruct their editors to work to the tempo of the film's score – e.g. see my review this month of the 20th anniversary special DVD of Spielberg's E.T. on Film Music on the Web]

But to turn to the review of these new Naxos musical journeys. First the good news, what a splendid idea! Now the bad, how are very disappointing they both are. The DVD boxes wax eloquently that these journeys are unforgettable. Wrong! Both journeys are too specifically tied to relatively small areas of both France and Italy. In fact I can imagine the Tourist Boards of both countries gnashing their teeth in despair, for these images of not particularly attractive, off-the-beaten-track locales are more likely to provoke yawns. In the French Festival there are endless boring views of badly colour photographed coastlines, insipid landscapes and uninspired buildings. In the Italian film there is again too much emphasis on the relatively obscure Montepulciano and Contucci vineyard districts, poorly filmed, unimaginative and with narrow-choice views of Florence (no Cathedral interiors, no view of Santa Croce for instance); and why a tedious journey up a funicular railway (to Luigi Denza's Funiculi, funiculà) just to see a row of shipyard cranes? – surely Genoa deserves better? Not that Venice fares much better either - just views of lesser narrow canals in winter snows (nicely atmospheric, granted and - an unusual viewpoint of Venice) but there is only a glimpse of a less celebrated part of the Grand Canal (no Rialto Bridge). We do not see St Mark's Cathedral and Square and not even a sight of Santa Maria della Salute that regales the front of the DVD box.

Worse, for the most part, the choice of the music is not sympathetic to the visuals either in pace or mood. For instance, we hear Ravel's Pavane pour une infante défunte with pictures of the infamous island prison off Marseilles, the Château d'If in which 'The Count of Monte Cristo' and 'The Man in the Iron Mask' were incarcerated - a strange choice indeed. Then we hear Godard's lovely Berceuse accompanying pleasure boats sailing in and out of the nondescript little fishing village and resort that is Port Camargue. Saint-Saëns exciting Danse Macabre is set against almost static photography of the fortress at Aigues-Mortes ("Stagnant Water"), appropriately named in this context.

The choices for the Italian journey are disappointing, there are far too many tarantellas (spelt tarantelle, the French way for goodness sake!) and all the works save by Denza are by non-Italians!! Have the producers not heard of composers like Martucci and Respighi (the Italians wrote more than just operas; and, in any case, why not choose preludes or intermezzi?). Why could the producers not have invested a little more time and money and taken their cameras down to Rome and Naples. They could have used, for example, Respighi's Pines of the Janiculum (from his Pines of Rome) to great effect, with pictures of Janiculum Hill in the moonlight with St Peter's in the background.

The performances of the music are erratic and often not very inspiring.

Lest the reader think these DVDs are a total disaster, I would add that there are one or two tracks that nearly make the grade. On the French Festival, beautiful night shots at Port Camargue enhance Debussy's Claire de lune and nicely edited film of the sea around St Raphael on the Gulf of Fréjus match quite well Debussy's La terrasse des audiences au clair de lune. On the Italian Festival Mendelssohn's Venetian Gondolier's Song fits the Venetian waterways shots reasonably well and some of the more humorous stretches of Godard's Scènes Italiennes fit very nicely pictures of a commedia dell'arte statue atop a campanile. But…

A wonderful concept deserving of far better treatment than found in these dreary musical journeys.

Ian Lace

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